MLS Conference Finals: Only one team with no 1st leg to stand on
Major League Soccer’s conference final first legs took place on Tuesday evening because that’s how MLS rolls. Apparently, the league would rather piggyback the UEFA Champions League, which most of its audience must save on DVR to watch after work and dinner, than compete with NFL and NCAA football on the weekend. It’s never fun being the runt of the litter.
With the two first legs played out, one place in the MLS Cup final is up for grabs. The other is all but decided. Here’s what happened.
Eastern Conference Final
Columbus Crew 0-0 Toronto FC
After New York Red Bulls did their best to trample TFC players to overturn the Reds 2-1 advantage in the second leg of their conference semifinal, sparking a half-time melee in the tunnel, Toronto came into the conference final first leg without its two main scoring threats, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
For its part, Columbus players have seemingly been on a mission to either convince owner Anthony Precourt to keep the team in the Ohio college town rather than move it to Austin, Texas or leave every ounce of their souls behind before leaving.
When two sides up against it meet, the encounter is usually billed as momentous. Unfortunately, what fans tend to get when tuning in for a momentous occasion is a goalless draw. This tilt was no different.
Given its two big weapons were shelved for the contest, TFC bears little blame for the outcome. Victor Vazquez’ tame free kick dribbled harmlessly wide of Zack Steffan’s left post early. One has to think Giovinco, who normally assumes set piece duties, would have done more with the chance. Otherwise, the Reds posed little threat in the final third.
Meanwhile the Crew were unable to convert any of their opportunities. Alex Bono charged out to take away Pedro Santos excellent chance from a Justin Meram through-ball, perhaps escaping a penalty in the process. Ola Kamara’s follow-up was calmly deflected away by defender Drew Moor, adroitly covering for Bono. Beyond that, the Yellow and Black missed the net with most of its 14 shots.
The second leg happens in Toronto next Wednesday, the 29th. Cold weather, even snow are possibilities with BMO Field sitting on Lake Ontario’s shore and December just days away. The certainty, however, is that Giovinco and Altidore will be back. Columbus may have wasted a gilded chance to leave a second MLS Cup in their wake when they depart in 2019.
Houston Dynamo 0-2 Seattle Sounders
Yosemite Sam loved dynamite. Yet it always blew up in his face. That is what happened to Houston Dynamo hopes in the first leg of the Western Conference final. Worse, the fuse was lit by former Dynamo forward Will Bruin, who scored a devastating second away goal just before the half.
The first goal came from Swede Gustav Svensson barely ten minutes into the match.
Just before the half-hour, Sounders stole possession from Houston and countered effectively. Nicolas Lodeiro strode calmly down the center, looking for, then finding Joevin Jones streaking into the box from the left flank. Jalil Anibaba had no choice but to haul down MLS' Marcus Rashford clone, drawing a red card in the process. Joe Willis dove to his left to parry away Lodeiro's penalty kick, but the Dynamo faced an hour's play one man short.
That set the stage for Bruin. Although regular season splits suggested Clint Dempsey was more likely to score on the road, Bruin at home, that trend was overturned when Dempsey found a brace at Century Link Field to dispatch Vancouver in Seattle's conference semi-final home leg before the international break. Of course, Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium probably still feels like home to the 28-year-old Bruin, who played five seasons with the Texans. Thus, he was able to catch Jones' eye, then time his run between the defenders perfectly to head the winger's cross over a helpless Willis.
Five minutes after the restart, Houston’s Mauro Manotas held a buy-one-get-one dummy sale, wrong-footing both Svensson and Roman Torres to get in on Tyler Miller alone. Unfortunately, he sent the chance to get his team back in the tie over the bar.
From there, Seattle shut the door on the Dynamo. Ninety minutes more of the same on Wednesday the 29th, will stamp the MLS Cup holders’ passports to a December title defense.